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Great Expectations: How a Novel's First Line Draws in the Reader

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate.
—First lines of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler

The first line of a novel has to accomplish many things at once. It has to grab the reader in some way with its immediacy, but also effectively introduce the rest of the book. A great opening line isn't a tweet, and it can withstand all the spoilers in the world, because literature is something thought through, and the pleasures are deeper than the next immediate payoff.

This does not mean that authors don't play with the reader's expectations to achieve their ends. In fact, classifying opening lines of novels in terms of reader expectation and comfort level is a good way to get a handle on an unwieldy phenomenon with as many instances as there are novels. Most interesting to me is how some authors create a suspenseful atmosphere right from the start, not just thematically, but on the sentence level as well. These are openings where you have to keep reading.

Within this kind of opening there are different types, and the expectations of the reader vary accordingly. In "scene-setting" openings, the reader is relatively comfortable and on solid ground, with any unusual features being highlighted because they are contrasted with a staid background. "Thesis statement" beginnings seem to address the thematic concerns of the novel before beginning the story proper, and "cliffhanger openings" are disconcerting — the solid ground has melted beneath the feet of the reader and they are often left confused on every level — plot-wise, character-wise, sometimes, even, as I will show, grammatically.

Setting the Scene

Among the most common types of opening line is one that functions to set the scene — either the immediate scene, or the general world. Novels don't come more stifling and psychologically claustrophobic than Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, but even this work uses its opening line to set the scene:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

A sense of something being "off," of heat and menace, is present in the novel right from the start, and although the reader doesn't know it yet, it is in a way this free-floating menace and lack of comfort that that will be the subject of the novel. Even though Plath reveals her themes right away, it is under the cover of a pretty standard opening for a novel, and there is little to alert the first time reader that this first line does anything but set up what comes next.

Even some openings with something quite strange about them, like the opening of Orwell's 1984 and Kafka's Metamorphosis, essentially set the scene for what is to come after them.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

As Gregor Samsa awoke from a night of uneasy dreaming, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

These are standard openings, except for the clock and the insect.

These pertinent and unusual details stick out all the more because the background they are presented against is so normal. Lulled by the normalcy of the first part of the sentence, a reader is shocked when the "first line trap" is sprung. Caught in this trap, the reader knows that their expectations for how things proceed from here will do them no good. The unusual detail has plunged the reader almost immediately into a fictional world.

Thesis Statements

There is another type of opening, where the author delays entry into the fictional world they have constructed. Sometimes authors, or more appropriately, narrators, take a moment before beginning the story to pontificate a little. This style is sometimes associated with older authors, like Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. —Pride and Prejudice

Here we have a general statement, about the times or the culture in which the book is set that the reader might keep in mind as they enter the story, and it is often something to revisit at the end of the story to see what light the events of the novel shed on such a blanket statement from all the way back in the beginning.

Contemporary authors employ thesis statements too, and the modern usage highlights why the thesis statement can be such a risk for the author and so potentially off-putting for a reader. Take this opening line, from Don Delillo's Great Jones Street:

Fame requires every kind of excess.

Or even potentially more divisively, because it is more straightforward, the opening of Sleeping in Flame, by Jonathan Carroll:

It took me less than half a lifetime to realize that regret is one of the few guaranteed certainties.

Thesis statement openings like these two force the reader's hand. Have you ever thought about fame and regret? Why not? There is a real sense of "us vs. them" with these kinds of first lines-either you "get it" and are immediately attracted or you close the book forever because it sounds like you'll be reading about regret for 250 pages (you won't, but it sounds like you will). Most readers aren't expecting to be interrogated so openly, and so immediately, by a book. As disturbing as Gregor Samsa's morning is, I would argue that a thesis statement first line can be even more disturbing, because it seems to be about you, the reader, and to be asking, right away, why you chose this book.

Cliffhangers

Finally we come to the cliffhanger sentences, where one has to keep reading just to get a clear picture of what's going on. The comfort the reader might take from knowing what to expect from a traditional beginning is gone. This type of first line includes dispatches from unreliable narrators:

All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Beyond this, there are cliffhangers that have to be dissected like poetry, where word choice and implication and what's said and not said seem crucial even though there are hundreds of pages left to go, where presumably some of these themes will be addressed again.

A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

Cliffhanger sentences again ask about the reader, but they also can be thought of as asking about the writer themselves. Not only "reader, why did you choose this book?" but also " reader, why did I the writer, just put that that way?" These are questions that can tie you in knots. Why "screaming" instead of "scream"? There is no answer to this question, but the first sentence of the book demands that it be asked.

Another instance of experimentation is Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

It was a pleasure to burn.

Burn needs an object, intransitive burn being limited to too much time at the beach ( "I wanted to tan but I burned instead") and perhaps moments of being lost in lust. So the entire conceit of the setup of Fahrenheit 451 — firemen who set fire to books — is contained in this missing object. It is a grammatical punchline, the proverbial other shoe dropping.

This analysis of Bradbury's first line makes it seem fancy, but there is another way to look at it. This dissection of word choice, and what is kept in and what is left out, is the most basic part of having a love of literature — marveling over those who can put words together in interesting, endlessly evocative ways. First lines are where this love affair often starts.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Friday May 9th, 1:46 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
Ideas are great, enjoyable approach that works well also with short stories or essays. A couple editorial corrections needed with "there" in para. 4 line 1 and middle of the paragraph just preceding Thesis Statements section.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Sunday May 11th, 8:55 PM
Comment by: G. Alfredo H.
Never an easy task to catch heterogeneous eyes with just a first line !Enjoyed the approach.
GH
Thursday June 19th, 10:46 AM
Comment by: pedro L. (Lausanne Switzerland)
How would you categorize Moby Dick's opening line: Call me Ishmael?

Alejandro
Friday June 20th, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Adam C.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your question, Alejandro. The first line of Moby Dick certainly does not fit neatly into any of the categories in the article. It is one of those opening lines whose effect changes depending on the audience. Without going too deeply into the issue of what Melville intended, I think it is safe to say that many in Melville's audience had a knowledge of the biblical story of Ishmael, and associations with it, that the modern reader may not necessarily share. In the case of Melville's audience ( or someone familiar with the biblical story) the use of Ishmael could refer to few things-exile, the founding of a great nation, etc. and one had to keep reading to find out more about the character of Ishmael to see which one is appropriate. For a modern reader, the Ishmael reference may just be a puzzle. For a more modern parallel, think about all you'd have to know to understand the first line of "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West (1933)

"The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard."

West's audience could be expected to know immediately what kind of newspaper the New York Post Dispatch was ( respectable? elitist?), what kind of advice was dispensed in a column of this sort ( dignified? trashy?)because they most likely read them - these are details that are all but lost to history now, but would be all but immediate to the contemporary readers of this work. For readers now, it resembles nothing so much as an anthropological exercise, maybe even an archaeological dig into the past. So it can be with Melville, for some. I hope I have started to answer your question, Alejandro.
Sunday June 22nd, 1:16 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Insightful.
Monday June 23rd, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Denver, CO)
Within this kind of opening there are different types, and the expectations of the reader vary accordingly. In "scene-setting" openings, the reader is relatively comfortable and on solid ground, with any unusual features being highlighted because they are contrasted with a staid background. "Thesis statement" beginnings seem to address the thematic concerns of the novel before beginning the story proper, and "cliffhanger openings" are disconcerting — the solid ground has melted beneath the feet of the reader and they are often left confused on every level — plot-wise, character-wise, sometimes, even, as I will show, grammatically.

I'm missing Susan B.'s point: "Ideas are great, enjoyable approach that works well also with short stories or essays. A couple editorial corrections needed with "there" in para. 4 line 1 and middle of the paragraph just preceding Thesis Statements section."

Clarify for me, please. Thanks.

P. Harris

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